Emily Dickinson Dickinson, Emily (Elizabeth) - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Emily (Elizabeth) Dickinson 1830–1886

American poet.

Although only seven of Dickinson's poems were published during her lifetime—all anonymously and some apparently without her consent—Dickinson is considered a premier American poet. Choosing the lyric as her form, Dickinson wrote on a variety of subjects, including nature, love, death, and immortality. As she honed the lyric format, Dickinson developed a unique style, characterized by compressed expression, the use of enjambment, and an exploration of the possibilities of language. In 1955 the publication of Thomas H. Johnson's edition of Dickinson's complete poems prompted renewed scholarly interest in her work. Modern criticism has focused on Dickinson's style, structure, use of language, and the various themes found in her poetry. Some critics have examined these same issues from a feminist viewpoint. Regardless of the critical angle, most modern scholars incorporate some discussion of Dickinson's life experiences into their examinations of her work.

Biographical Information

Critical and popular interest in Dickinson's life has been fueled by the mythology that has grown up around the limited factual knowledge available. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830. The daughter of a prosperous lawyer and an invalid mother, Dickinson's schoolwork was often interrupted by time spent at home learning domestic chores. Beginning in 1835, she spent four years at a primary school and then attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847. From there, Dickinson advanced to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year, where her studies were influenced by New England Puritanism. This, together with Dickinson's Unitarian upbringing, heavily influenced her poetry's structure—the lyric form she used was a revision of the hymn quatrain—as well as its content—religious themes are the focus of many of her poems. Despite these influences on her work, though, personal faith eluded her and she remained an agnostic throughout her life.

After her year at Mount Holyoke, Dickinson returned to her family's home where she remained almost exclusively for the rest of her life. From 1851 to 1855,

she made a few brief visits to Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Biographers speculate that on one trip to Philadelphia, Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and that her disappointment from this affair triggered her subsequent withdrawal from society. This, and other rumors of romantic entanglements, are largely conjecture; however, it is known that her reclusiveness intensified over the years. Her personal habits—always wearing white, never leaving her home, refusing to receive visitors—earned her a reputation for eccentricity. In 1874, Dickinson's father died unexpectedly, leaving her to care for her invalid mother, who died in 1882. Dickinson died in 1886 after being diagnosed with Bright's disease, a kidney disorder.

Major Works

Over the course of her writing career, Dickinson composed nearly eighteen hundred poems, all in the form of brief lyrics. She explored a variety of subjects: the austerity and beauty of nature, experiences of love and loss, and her own skeptical attitude toward religion and immortality, as well as her fascination with death. Drawing heavily from biblical sources and influenced by such poets as George Herbert, Shakespeare, and John Keats, Dickinson developed a highly personal system of symbol and allusion, assigning complex meanings to colors, places, times, and seasons. She experimented with compression, enjambment, and unusual rhyme schemes, and also employed an idiosyncratic use of capitalization and punctuation, thereby creating a poetic style that further distinguished her verse from contemporary American poetry.

Critical Reception

Initial criticism of Dickinson's work, following the 1890 publication of Poems of Emily Dickinson, was largely unfavorable, yet her work received widespread popular acclaim. Willis Buckingham has noted that readers in the 1890s often praised Dickinson's "inspired" thoughts and emotions rather than her poetic technique. Modern critics, though, have come to appreciate Dickinson's accomplishments in language and poetic structure. Margaret Dickie has challenged critics who have attempted to provide a narrative analysis of Dickinson's work by studying her poetry as a whole. Dickie maintains that the poems were written as lyrics, and should be examined as such. Karen Oakes has explored Dickinson's use of metonymy to establish an intimate, feminine discourse with her readers. Other critics, such as Judy Jo Small and Timothy Morris, have analyzed Dickinson's rhyme structure, Small noting the acoustical effects of this structure, and Morris observing how Dickinson's patterns of rhyme and enjambment developed over time.

Many critics have also explored the various themes of Dickinson's poetry against the backdrop of events in her personal life. Among these are Jane Donahue Eberwein, who has studied the poems concerning love and its redemption, and Nadean Bishop, who has focused on Dickinson's spirituality, specifically the poems that seem to indicate the poet's rejection of religious dogma in favor of a private version of God and heaven. Paula Hendrickson, who has examined Dickinson's poems that focus on the precise moment of death, notes that these poems are typically treated as a subcategory of the death poem genre and are rarely treated individually.

Power is another of Dickinson's themes that has received a great deal of critical attention. R. McClure Smith has examined how Dickinson uses the trope of seduction to explore her relationship to patriarchal power. Feminist critics have also found the issue of power of great significance in Dickinson's work. Cheryl Walker maintains that while many feminist critics try to assert that Dickinson's life was "a model of successful feminist manipulation of circumstances," in fact, the poet was attracted to masculine forms of power. Paula Bennett, on the other hand, has contended that Dickinson's relationships with women were more significant than her struggles with men, male power, or male tradition. Bennett argues that Dickinson's relationship with women provided her with the comfort and safety necessary for the poet to explore her own sexuality. This contention, Bennett states, is supported by a reading of Dickinson's poems that recognizes their homoeroticism and use of clitoral imagery.

The enigmatic details surrounding Dickinson's life continue to fascinate readers and critics alike. Yet it is the technical originality of her poetry, the variety of themes she addressed, and the range and depth of intellectual and emotional experience she explored that have established Dickinson's esteemed reputation as an American poet.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Poems by Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1890

Poems by Emily Dickinson, second series (poetry) 1891

Letters of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols, (letters) 1894

Poems by Emily Dickinson, third series (poetry) 1896

The Single Hound: Poems of a Lifetime (poetry) 1914

Further Poems of Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1929

Unpublished Poems of Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1935

Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1945

The Poems of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols, (poetry) 1955

The Letters of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols, (letters) 1958

John Crowe Ransom (essay date 1956)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Emily Dickinson: A Poet Restored," in Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard B. Sewell, Prentice Hall, 1963, pp. 88-100.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1956, Ransom provides a general overview of twentieth-century criticism of Dickinson's poetry, noting in particular the impact of Thomas H. Johnson's 1955 edition of Dickinson's verse, as well as the characteristics and major themes of her poetry.]

We would have to go a good way back into the present century to find the peak of that furious energy which produced our biggest and most whirling flood of verse in this country. So it is not too foolhardy to make a...

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David J. M. Higgins (essay date 1961)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Emily Dickinson's Prose," in Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard B. Sewell, Prentice Hall, 1963, pp. 162-77.

[In the following essay, originally part of a 1961 doctoral dissertation, Higgins studies Dickinson's letters, observing that in both prose and poetry Dickinson reduced thoughts and ideas to their essences, Higgins discusses the method by which Dickinson composed her letters and her habit of combining poetry with her prose.]

An earnest letter is or should be a life-warrant or death-warrant, for what is each instant but a gun, harmless because "unloaded," but that touched "goes off?"


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Jane Donahue Eberwein (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Wildest Word': The Habit of Renunciation," in Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation, University of Massachusetts Press, 1985, pp. 21-46.

[In the following essay, Eberwein examines the theme of renunciation in Dickinson's love poems, suggesting the possible correlation between certain life experiences and Dickinson's verse.]

"Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—dont you know that 'No' is the wildest word we consign to Language?" (L 562). Dickinson posed these questions in an 1878 letter to Judge Otis Phillips Lord at an early stage in her autumnal romance with the widowed Salem jurist, her father's friend and ally in...

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Douglas Leonard (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Chastisement of Beauty': A Mode of the Religious Sublime in Dickinson's Poetry," in American Transcendental Quarterly, University of Rhode Island, Vol. 1, No. 3, September, 1987, pp. 247-56.

[In the following essay, Leonard considers Dickinson as a Romantic poet, arguing that her emphasis on emotion in her poetry (like that of other Romantic poets) is rooted in the eighteenth-century notion of the sublime.]

Emily Dickinson shared with other Romantic poets, American and European, the intuition that the age of reason had run its course and had failed to bring the hoped-for illumination and order. In the new century, as the focus turned toward the self, the...

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Nadean Bishop (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Queen of Calvary: Spirituality in Emily Dickinson," in University of Dayton Review, Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter, 1987-1988, pp. 49-60.

[In the following essay, Bishop asserts that the spirituality so central to Dickinson 's poetry is characterized by the poet's dismissal of contemporary religious dogma as well as by her decision, "based on Self-Reliance," to envision her own version of God and heaven.]

Many books and essays on Emily Dickinson's poetry have appeared in the last five years, and each approaches the question of spirituality divergently depending on the author's dominant focus. Barbara Mossberg deals with Dickinson as dutiful and rebellious daughter;...

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Cristanne Miller (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Names and Verbs: Influences on the Poet's Language," in Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar, Harvard University Press, 1987, pp. 131-203.

[In the following essay, Miller investigates the various works and authors who influenced the style, theories, and themes of Dickinson's poetry. Miller contends that perhaps the greatest influence on Dickinson was the Bible, which served as a model for Dickinson's use of several techniques, including compression, parataxis, and disjunction]

Books are the best things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? … They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book than...

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Margaret Dickie (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dickinson's Discontinuous Lyric Self," in American Literature, Vol. 60, No. 4, December, 1988, pp. 537-53.

[In the following essay, Dickie maintains that Dickinson's poems should be analyzed not as pieces of a narrative, but as lyric poems in which the qualities of brevity, repetition, and figuration are the most pertinent and the most telling. Dickie stresses that such an analysis reveals a sense of self that is "particular, discontinuous, limited, private, hidden," and that this conclusion challenges those reached by feminist and psychoanalytic narrative character analyses.]

It is the habit of our times to read poetry as if it were prose perhaps because...

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Karen Oakes (Kilcup) (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Welcome and Beware: The Reader and Emily Dickinson's Figurative Language," in ESQ, Vol. 34, No. 3, 1988, pp. 181-206.

[In the following essay, Oakes argues that Dickinson uses metonymy to develop a "culturally feminine " discursive intimacy with her readers.]

"Much Madness is divinest Sense—/ To a discerning Eye," affirms Emily Dickinson: how one "reads" depends on the quality of the reader's lens, the "I." Dickinson muses often, directly and indirectly, about reading. Poetry stuns with "Bolts of Melody"; from "A Word dropped careless on a Page," the reader may "inhale" "Infection," "Despair," "Malaria."1 To Higginson, she insists, "If I read a...

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Timothy Morris (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Development of Dickinson's Style," in On Dickinson: The Best from American Literature, edited by Edwin H. Cady and Louis J. Budd, Duke University Press, Vol. 60, No. 1, 1990, pp. 157-72.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1988, Morris contends that, contrary to the opinion of many critics, Dickinson's style did change and develop over time. Morris maintains that by measuring the rhyme and enjambment patterns of Dickinson's poetry, one can see that the "formal contours of her verse" evolved throughout her writing career.]

It has become a given of Dickinson criticism that the poet's style never changed. A recent study begins: "As more than one...

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Alice Fulton (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Her Moment of Brocade: The Reconstruction of Emily Dickinson," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1989, pp. 9-44.

[In the following essay, Fulton contends that while Dickinson is acknowledged as a premier American poet, there remains a resistance among critics to a "Dickinsonian tradition in American letters." Fulton explores the possible reasons for this resistance and notes that when Dickinson is judged by the criteria derived from the work of other major poets and movements, her unique accomplishments, particularly in the area of language, are overlooked.]

The way Hope builds his House
It is not with a sill—

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Cheryl Walker (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Locating a Feminist Critical Practice: Between the Kingdom and the Glory," in Emily Dickinson: a Celebration for Readers, edited by Suzanne Juhasz and Cristanne Miller, Gordon and Breach, 1989, pp. 9-19.

[In the following essay, Walker analyzes the way in which Dickinson's views and portrayals of power relationships were influenced "by her experience of gender." Walker maintains that while some feminist examinations of Dickinson have painted her life as a "model of a successful feminist manipulation of circumstances," this view is inaccurate, given Dickinson's fascination with male power.]

In three different letters, numbered by Johnson and Ward 292, 330, and...

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Paula Bennett (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Pea That Duty Locks: Lesbian and Feminist-Heterosexual Readings of Emily Dickinson's Poetry," in Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions, edited by Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, New York University Press, 1990, pp. 104-25.

[In the following essay, Bennett challenges feminist critics who study Dickinson "as a woman poet" but within the context of Dickinson's "relationship to the male tradition." Bennett asserts that Dickinson's erotic poetry suggests that the poet viewed her relationships with women as safe and protected, and that these relationships allowed Dickinson to explore her sexuality.]

[The clitoris] is endowed with the...

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Judith Banzer Farr (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: '"Compound Manner': Emily Dickinson and the Metaphysical Poets," in On Dickinson: The Best from American Literature, edited by Edwin H. Cady and Louis J. Budd, Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 52-68.

[In the following essay, Farr traces the influence of seventeenth-century metaphysical poets, such as John Donne and George Herbert, on Dickinson's verse.]

The habit of Emily Dickinson's mind led her, like George Herbert, to construct a "Double Estate" in which this world was "furnished with the Infinite," in which God was her "Old Neighbor," and death, agony, and grace were fleshly companions. The discipline that wrought many of her poems was the metaphysical one...

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Paula Hendrickson (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dickinson and the Process of Death," in Dickinson Studies, Vol. 77, 1st Half, 1991, pp. 33-43.

[In the following essay, Hendrickson studies the poems of Dickinson which refer to the precise moment of death, stating that these poems are often grouped as a subcategory of Dickinson's death poems and are rarely studied individually. Hendrickson analyzes in particular the imagery and themes specific to these poems.]

While many books and articles have been written on the topic of Emily Dickinson's death poems, virtually nothing has been published about her moment of death poems. On rare occasions, scholars have mentioned the moment of death poems as a sub-catagory...

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Willis Buckingham (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetry Readers and Reading in the 1890's: Emily Dickinson's First Reception," in Readers in History: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Contexts of Response, edited by James L. Machor, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993, pp. 164-79.

[In the following essay, Buckingham reviews the reception of Dickinson's poetry by readers in the 1890s, stating that they praised her inspirational thoughts and feelings more than they respected her poetic technique.]

When Emily Dickinson's Poems first appeared in 1890, her reluctant Boston publisher, Thomas Niles of Roberts Brothers, wondered whether his firm could afford to underwrite even a small edition of...

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R. McClure Smith (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'He Asked If I Was His': The Seductions of Emily Dickinson," in ESQ, Vol. 40, No. 1, 1994, pp. 27-65.

[In the following essay, Smith traces the influence of Dickinson 's relationship to the "disciplinary power of her patriarchal culture, " arguing that this power struggle is portrayed in Dickinson 's use of the "trope of seduction. "]

The poetry of Emily Dickinson is a superb testing ground for any literary analysis that emphasizes historical considerations. Indeed, while recent critical studies that attempt to "relate" Dickinson to her contemporary culture are interesting and informative, it would be more difficult to argue that any are particularly...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Barker, Wendy. Lunacy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor. Ad Feminam: Women and Literature, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987, 214 p.

Provides a feminist analysis of the light and dark imagery in Dickinson's poems.

Bennett, Paula. "Beyond the Dip of Bell." In her Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. Key Women Writers, series edited by Sue Roe, pp. 24-50. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.

Studies Dickinson's apparent desire to exceed the conventional limits of poetry and language.

Bloom, Harold,...

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